The tea houses of Japan, the graceful and beautiful young women performing in them, their elaborate hairdos, waxlike skins, enchanting costumes and hidden lives. For long, these cultural vignettes of the East have intrigued the outside world. Who is a Geisha? What is her life like? Is she a cultural ambassador, an artist, a kept woman or a companion? Just like the tea houses of Japan, the lives of its entertainers have been shrouded, tantalizing the outside world with that occasional glimpse or two. It is this mysterious world that Golden purports to explore in his Memoris of Geisha.
Golden’s protagonist Chiyo, is a poor, nine year old daughter of a fisherman with unusually beautiful eyes. When her mother is on her deathbed, a local businessman sells Chiyo to an okiya (the place where a Geisha is trained and stays) in Japan’s Gion district. The book follows the story of this nine year old as she first rebels and then accepts her fate. As she is introduced into her new, mysterious life, so is the reader. With her, we learn how to wear a kimono; we uncover the secrets behind the luminous white complexion and the elaborate hairdo of the Geisha; we witness the rigourous training and brutal disciplining – both mental and physical, young girls are subjected to in order to become “the perfect companion,” for the rich and the influential. We see how innocence is trodden over; replaced by guile, grace and an instinct to survive.
The book reads like an autobiography. Golden begins by recounting how his friendship with Sayuri, a prominent Geisha of Gion led to the book. He makes the audience believe that his historical fiction is a real story, told by a real Geisha. The narrative is in first person and most people end the book believing that it is a true story. Well that it is not. And while it describes the life of a Geisha and Japan’s Gion district is vivid detail, it is by no means a faithful rendering. Golden may have uncovered some facts, but his perspective remains that of an outsider. His story is based not on real life experience but detailed research, which while commendable is neither neutral nor always accurate. That being said, there is no taking away from the fact that the insights or glimpses provided by Golden are indeed interesting. The book is an engaging read and Golden’s writing style enables the readers to experience the emotions of Sayuri. They feel her confusion when she is sold off, her distress when she is separated from her sister, her misery at the horrors visited upon her at the okiya, her elation at becoming a successful geisha and her love for the unattainable chairman; for the Memoirs of a Geisha is, at the end if the day, a historical love story set against an exotic and enthralling backdrop. If you are looking or a love story that goes beyond the prescribed formula, and provides great characterisation, pick up this book.
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